He was a surprise of white: his teeth
like knives, his face a triangle
of albino dislike. I had seen him before,
on our back porch, where my father
sometimes left watermelon rinds,
and he dipped his tongue into them,
his skin glowing beneath our lights,
like some four-legged relative
of the moon. I knew him
as a citizen of the night:
a fainting, ghostly presence
with a tail so naked it was
embarrassed to drag behind him.
But that morning, terrified and violent,
he was different: a hissing fury
at the bottom of the garbage can,
a vampire bathed in light.
Turning the corner, we discovered it
just as the old wrought-iron lamps went on—
a quiet, tree-lined street, only one block long
resting between the noisy avenues.
The streetlamps splashed the shadows of the leaves
across the whitewashed brick, and each tall window
glowing through the ivy-decked facade
promised lives as perfect as the light.
Walking beneath the trees, we counted all
the high black doors of houses bolted shut.
And yet we could have opened any door,
entered any room the evening offered.
Or were we deluded by the strange
equations of the light, the vagrant wind
searching the trees, that we believed this brief
conjunction of our separate lives was real?
It seemed that moment lingered like a ghost,
a flicker in the air, smaller than a moth,
a curl of smoke flaring from a match,
haunting a world it could not touch or hear.
There should have been a greeting or a sign,
the smile of a stranger, something beyond
the soft refusals of the summer air
and children trading secrets on the steps.
Traffic bellowed from the avenue.
Our shadows moved across the street’s long wall,
and at the end what else could I have done
but turn the corner back into my life?
The dough rises in the sun,
history of the human rice inside it:
orgies, famines, Christanity,
eras when a man could have his arm
chopped off for stealing half a loaf.
I punch it down, knead the dark
flour into the light, let it bake,
then set it on the table beside the knife,
learning the power
cooks have over others, the pleasure
of saying eat.
That night the shore kept our shoes
and we left our boxers hanging from branches,
hid ourselves in the river. It was a test of manhood,
to see how naked we’d become
and not care. Tony, the most beautiful,
was laughing. Through the water
I saw a pale blur and knew what it stood for,
my heart paddling. We slapped each others’ backs,
tossed a football, the moon showing on the river
in fragments. When the girls came
with their breasts and their reluctance
to leave their panties in the tree shrine,
the energy shifted — the water shook.
We brushed against each other, sent beer cans
crumpled downriver. From somewhere
in the crowd, a scream, then bodies fled,
clamoring over the bank. The cause — a deer
who had come to test the shore with its mouth
and was frozen, as I was frozen, to the edge
until it bolted away and I bolted away too.
Into the field I ran with the pack of men
and in the moonlight I saw Tony, all of Tony,
and in his hand the hand of a girl, his mouth
coming down to her neck as they ran. Off they went,
back from where they came, but I had left
my reflection at the shore, the reflection
of the deer there too, my other’s arm
outstretched to the deer and offering it water.
Watching the moon
I knew myself completely,
no part left out.
All morning, doing the hard, root-wrestling
work of turning a yard from the wild
to a gardener’s will, I heard a bird singing
from a hidden, though not distant, perch;
a song of swift, syncopated syllables sounding
like, Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
Can you believe this, believe this, believe?
And all morning, I did believe. All morning,
between break-even bouts with the unwanted,
I wanted to see that bird, and looked up so
I might later recognize it in a guide, and know
and call its name, but even more, I wanted
to join its church. For all morning, and many
a time in my life, I have wondered who, beyond
this plot I work, has called the order of being,
that givers of food are deemed lesser
than are the receivers. All morning,
muscling my will against that of the wild,
to claim a place in the bounty of earth,
seed, root, sun and rain, I offered my labor
as a kind of grace, and gave thanks even
for the aching in my body, which reached
beyond this work and this gift of struggle.
Day alone first of December with rain
falling lightly again in the garden
and the dogs sleeping on the dark floorboards
day between journeys unpacking from one
then packing for another and reading
poems as I go words from a time past
light migrants coming from so long ago
through the sound of this quiet rain falling